One year, I was a featured artist at a local spoken word venue where I had routinely performed before. The mostly white audience members always seemed to appreciate the performances I had shared in the past, with many coming up to me afterwards to gush over how much I had inspired them or entertained them. This particular evening, I decided to debut a poem I had written called “Ethnically Ambiguous.” In the past, I had done poems on the danger of silencing your voice as a woman, poems on bathing in your brilliance as a woman, poems on the hypocrisy of capitalism. I expected no less than the response I often received after performing a poem — loud applause, smiles, and cheers.
I read the poem with sass and panache, changing in and out of voices as I acted out various portions of the poem with an almost theatrical approach. The poem was meaty and confrontational, unapologetic and searing as it deconstructed the stereotypes we have emblazoned in our minds when we see people of color, whether they are Black, Asian, Latino, or Native American. It was a poem that spoke to the almost incessant questioning I endured growing up by people, Black and white people — mostly white people — very interested in asking me about my entire family tree. My curly hair, my sometimes peach-colored, sometimes beige-colored skin, along with my African name, seemed to throw them for a loop. The poem was based on life experiences of being told that I look more like a “Maria” and less like a “Khadijah.” Those experiences of being in summer camp where the group of white girls I’m rooming with comb my hair and coo at me in awe of how “ethnic” I am. It was a poem about being someone who is not open to your interpretation.
I knew something was different when the funny parts of my poem didn’t attract the laughs I was used to. When smatterings of applause greeted me at the end of the poem, I was surprised by the feedback, but shrugged it off as a delivery issue. I have performed way more confrontational work in the past and didn’t feel this poem to be much more hard-hitting. Later in the evening, an elderly yet young-spirited white woman sidled up to me and cracked a joke in relation to my poem, indicating that she had listened and liked it. “Don’t worry,” she whispered, as if I had confided in her my surprise at the lackluster feedback. “They are all probably processing what your poem is about. Mainly because it was about them.” And, with that, she disappeared.
I pondered her words a bit as I went home that night. I still reflect on the idea that sharing my experience of being second-guessed and questioned about my racial identity could possibly make an audience of mostly white people uncomfortable — or, at the very least, shocked into silence. What I surmised then and understand more clearly as each day passes is that the intentional choosing to assert your Black identity when others want to call you everything but is possibly a paradigm-shifting event.
We live in a world where a dark-brown skinned person will most likely call himself bi-racial if his parents are not of the same ethnicity or race. We live in a world where countries like the Dominican Republic have dozens of names to identify people (other than Black) based on the shade of brown their skin color is. We live in a country where being Black is synonymous with being a target, being othered on the regular. I feel like the unstated question often is, “Why would you choose that as an identifier if your physical presentation could encompass so much more?” The very idea that that question exists makes me uncomfortable and disappointed.
For starters, I choose Black because that is what I am, and because that term encompasses all of who I am culturally, ethnically, and otherwise. Although my mother’s father is a mystery, her immediate maternal family members are Black people born in the United States, and my entire father’s side of the family is Black American. I know that my maternal great-grandmother was of Cherokee nation and had Irish blood running through her veins. I know that my ancestry is mixed, but my cultural experience is one of a Black woman in America — whether thought to be Black American or a Black Latina. My light skin has incited the reaction of both race-based hostility and shade-based preference. Both reactions have been demoralizing, disappointing, and shameful illustrations of how race and color politics are still at play when it comes to hiring practices, social class maneuvering, and the basic everyday challenges we encounter as people of color.
I am not a white person like Rachel Dolezal, growing up as a white woman and deciding she liked Black culture. I am a Black woman with a Black mother and Black father who happened to come out light-skinned and, because I look like people who come from Spanish-speaking countries and people where one parent may not be Black, people think there is room for interpretation.
The “what are you” questions are an attempt to pigeon-hole and make a decision on how you will treat me — one reason I understand fully, now more than ever in our country of white privilege, why many who can identify those one or two non-Black relatives in their family tree are quick to mention them. It’s like a waving a white flag to show solidarity with white people, as though total Blackness were a marker to offend. To me, that there is the problem. It existed before Rachel Dolezal. When you see me, and I say that I am Black, there is nothing to interpret other than what I tell you. It is not an assault on your whiteness if I don’t mention that distant known relative who was white. It is not a declaration of war on you. When you ask what I am, and I tell you that I am a Black woman, I should not have opportunities reconsidered or my social value dropped if you are in a position of authority. When you ask what I am, I will tell you that I am a Black woman. And, when I tell you that, you need to stop asking. For it really shouldn’t make a difference.[Headline image: The photograph features the author, a Black woman with shoulder-length black curly hair. She is wearing a pink dress and red lipstick, and she is smiling.]
A playwright, poet, singer, and emerging filmmaker, Khadijah Moon is founder of Liberated Muse Arts Group and a recipient of a 2015 Individual Artist Award by the Maryland State Arts Council. Visit her at KhadijahOnline.com.